Friday, April 22, 2011

Is the Qabbalah Superfluous?

Some occultists and magicians have been making the point that the Qabbalah, which they see as having been derived from an exclusive form of Jewish mysticism, has been over-rated and that its influences and beliefs are not required for working ritual or ceremonial magick. This is not a new argument, but since it has been a popular topic as of late, it’s one that I feel obligated to examine in greater detail.

The real question that all magickal practitioners of the Western Mystery tradition should consider is this: Is the Qabbalah superfluous to practical magick? Can a magician work a system of magick that is completely expunged of all qabbalistic influences? The answer is, yes, of course! If we consider that the Qabbalah is merely a meta-system and a source of meta-knowledge, then choosing a different meta-system and meta-knowledge will readily replace the functionality occupied by the Qabbalah.

We should also understand that the Qabbalah was not derived exclusively from Jewish mysticism, that its historical source was a hybrid that had pagan philosophy and gnosticism blended into it. Also, the system of Qabbalah that most magicians use today is a product of the Golden Dawn and it’s various derivations, especially the Fraternity of Light and Servants of the Light. The Qabbalah of Dion Fortune and her occult progeny (such as Gareth Knight and Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki) has had the greatest impact on the Qabbalah that many of us study and use today, and they infused it with some theosophical elements as well. Thus, the Qabbalah of today is the product of a hybrid that has been mutating for centuries, and it is likely still mutating today. This is not the Lurian Qabbalah of the Hasidic European communities of the 17th century, and in fact, it is not the Qabbalah of the late 19th century, either.

My focus for ths article is really about the nature of a meta-system and meta-knowledge as they are used in occultism, how the Qabbalah is able to function as such, and what any other replacement system must contain in order to be effective. Since I don’t believe that the Qabbalah is either absolutely necessary or critical to the performing of either ritual or ceremonial magick, then I will need to explain why I still continue to use it and find it very capable in my own occult work. This only means that I am unwilling to replace the Qabbalah with another system, but I am able to define the parameters of that replacement. Still, the basic foundation for the Qabbalah is language, particularly, the mysticism of letters, numbers and their interchange in strategic words and phrases.

The Jewish Qabbalah has as its foundation the Hebrew language, specifically, Classical or Biblical Hebrew. Yet Aleister Crowley had shown in his writings (“777”) that the Hebrew language of the Qabbalah could be replaced with any other (sacred) language, but it should be one that has a certain mystique and occult affiliation. The numbers ten and twenty-two are still important, but alphabets that have more elements than twenty-two can be accommodated. Therefore, we can add Greek, Egyptian (Coptic), Arabic, and even Latin, Sanscrit and English to the range of possible foundational languages used to build a qabbalah. However, once we depart from the dual structures of the ten Sephiroth and twenty-two pathways to facilitate building a system with a completely different numbering system, then we will irreparably change the structure of the Tree of Life, and even the number of Trumps in the Tarot. It would seem that there are built in limitations if the purpose of building a variant qabbalah is to use the innate structures of the Tree of Life, the Pathways and their interaction as noted in the processes of spiritual evolution (for the individual seeker), and the emanations of the Godhead.

Other elements of the Qabbalah are its cosmology, cosmogony, occult metaphysics and the various practices and techniques of the practical Qabbalah, such as building tables of correspondences, establishing various spiritual hierarchies, determining the interrelationships of a word-based numerology, and the creation of acronyms, ciphers and sigils. Some of these practical techniques are not critically important, such as the crafting of acronyms and ciphers, which depends on the utility that the occultist or magician finds with such techniques. However, I have found them all to be useful and important in my studies, so I would have to completely replace them if I chose a radical meta-system and meta-knowledge to be the foundation of my magickal practice. I will cover these in greater detail a little bit later in this article, but for now, I want to focus on the nature of a meta-system and meta-knowledge.

What is a meta-system and what is meta-knowledge? I must admit that I am neither a computer scientist nor a mathematician, so my definitions will not be as precise as they might be. I will use imprecise verbiage to define these terms as they would be used in defining the nature of the Qabbalah.

A meta-system is a system that is described by attributes that are themselves abstract objects with their own properties and attributes. The interrelationships between these attributes would form what is loosely defined as a meta-system. It is, therefore, a system describing a system. This definition, as it applies to the Qabbalah, provides the basis for the tables of correspondences and the ordering of the various attributes around the associated qualities of the ten Sephiroth and the twenty-two Pathways (making a series of tables with at most 32 rows). It could also be applied to the various hierarchies and lists of spirits and gods, which could also be included as a subset of the tables of correspondences. The tables can also be reduced to focus on just the ten Sephiroth, or attributes of the four elements, seven planets or twelve signs of the zodiac.

Meta-knowledge is defined roughly as information about information, including the qualities that it has a structural organization (modeling and organizing) and a way of defining specific attributes (tags). This definition would specifically relate to the model of the Tree of Life, and how the various attributes of the Sephiroth and Pathways would be organized into relationships and attribute qualifiers, which could also be reflected in the various tables of correspondence. It should be noted that information implicitly associated with the glyph of the Tree of Life establishes a hierarchy of creative emanations and their interrelationships (through the 22 paths) as well as a holistic and symbolic expression of those formulations.   

As you can see, the two essential qualities of the Qabbalah (definition by attributes, information expressed through a model and specific tagging) could be associated with the concepts of a meta-system and meta-knowledge. These two qualities are the most important aspects in determining the value of the Qabbalah, and they would also function as important qualities for any system that would be used to replace it. A replacement system would have to have the following six elements:

  1. Stages or phases of emanation (analogous to the Sephiroth) based on pure number,
  2. Alphabetic system of interrelationships (analogous to the Pathways),
  3. Glyph or symbolic model depicting the structure of the emanations and pathways along with an implied hierarchy and interrelationships,
  4. Foundational language - typically a sacred tongue of some kind,
  5. Spiritual hierarchy,
  6. Various Tables of Correspondences - important occult attributes and their associated tags.

In addition to the above list of elements, the meta-system and meta-knowledge would be used to determine a cosmology and cosmogony, a structure of the inner spiritual planes, as well as the ability to define a kind of occult epistemology (nature and scope of knowledge) and ontology (nature of reality). It would also define the relationship between the ultimate Godhead as the One, and individual human beings as the Many. Emanation and evolution are both implied by this hierarchy as well as the definition of the macrocosm and the microcosm. This structure is also recursive, since the glyph of the Tree of Life applies to the cosmic emanations of the Godhead as well as to the psycho-spiritual structure of an individual human being (Adam Kadmon). I would also include the four Qabbalistic Worlds as representing a more direct model of the groupings or structures of the inner planes, and also the theorem that mind existed before matter. Therefore, if one were to omit using the Qabbalah, then some of these qualities would have to be determined using some other kind of philosophical mechanism.

Yet suppose that a magician decided that most of the above qualities were unnecessary to the actual practical work of magick. Suppose that he or she only wanted to borrow or rework those practical techniques that were absolutely necessary, and then discard the rest. What, then, is absolutely necessary to the practice of ritual or ceremonial magick.

The first thing that is most important, in my opinion, is for the magician to develop a methodology for crafting the sigils of the various spirits, particularly if such sigils didn’t already exist. The second thing is to be able to somehow conceptualize the nature and structure of the inner planes. Spirits don’t exist in a vacuum, suddenly appearing when properly summoned. They exist in a hierarchy of domains. Thus, the use of spirit lists and an associated hierarchical structure would also be quite important for the practicing magician.

One could have a number of disparate tables to use for spirit lists, or one could attempt to link all of those lists into a meta-hierarchy. Extending these spirit lists into a meta-hierarchy would develop the inter-relationships between the various spirits, and it would produce a structure that would be a lot like a qabbalah. A meta-hierarchy is useful to the ritual or ceremonial magician because it helps to uniquely define each spirit, making them more easy to invoke or evoke. Developing a qabbalah out of these spirit lists would make their over-all structure (or meta-hierarchy) even more refined, thereby showing why adopting some kind of qabbalah would be useful and natural to the practice of magick.  

The other practical uses of the Qabbalah could be omitted, but they are also very useful and important tools. I have found that a strict and intensive use of Gematria (as the transformation of the letters of words and phrases into numbers) is not really very useful. Kenneth Grant has shown this behavior in his books, giving us an example of what an abuse of Gematria can produce - a lot of tenuous occult proofs and dubious connections. Yet a moderate use of Gematria (as shown by Aleister Crowley in his writings) is useful and illuminating. So, too, with Notariqon and Temurah, since the usefulness of acronyms and ciphers varies amongst occultists. Still, being able to pull together many lists into a holistic structure of tables of correspondences is very useful to the magician who is either invoking through a symbolic matrix, or finds the use of ancillary attributes and symbols to be magically effective and conducive. Such additional attributes would consist of the following elements:

  • Colors,
  • Incense,
  • Perfumes,
  • Ethnic Godheads,
  • Planets, Elements, Zodiacal Signs,
  • Metals,
  • Minerals,
  • Herbs,
  • Magickal formulas or words of power,
  • Spiritual or theological concepts,
  • Various spirits (angelic, demonic, neutral) associated with various hierarchies,
  • Symbols or geometric shapes,
  • Magickal weapons or tools,
  • Alphabets,
  • Tarot cards,
  • Alchemical concepts,
  • inner plane domains,
  • etc. ad infinitum.
The ability to link all of these attributes together into a single structure would allow all of them to be related to specific occult concepts, representing a greater domain with many sub-domains operating within it. Such a methodology would allow for the creation of powerful associations as well as the ability to build an operant link for any specific spirit or godhead.

Personally, I can’t think of a more useful and important function than being able to build an operant link. This capability, not to mention everything else covered above, would show that the Qabbalah is a very important meta-system for the accomplished ritual or ceremonial magician. One would either have to use what is already available or invent a replacement in order to retain that degree or level of functionality. For myself, I would choose to use and extend what is already available instead of having to create a replacement, since that would be a lot like reinventing the wheel. Others may have their reasons for crafting a replacement (or not), but I would rather focus my efforts on other areas.

If someone elects not to use the Qabbalah, then that’s their choice, of course. But to also omit any of the above functionality is to wield, in my opinion, an inferior magickal methodology.

Frater Barrabbas  


  1. Hermetic Qabalah is not the only possible arrangement of the basic elements of magick, but in any Western system you're going to be working with the elements, planets, and signs of the Zodiac. They span Jewish, Christian, and Pagan cultures from Europe to the Middle East, and Liber 777 remains the most useful schema of those elements that I've yet to come across. Whether or not you decide to map your symbols onto the Tree of Life, you still are going to have to put together some sort of set of attributions for the various magical forces if you want to be able to get anything done.

    One of the points that you don't really touch on in this article is that sharing a common arrangement of magical symbols allows magicians to work in groups effectively, and whatever one may think of the Golden Dawn arrangement of the Tree of Life and Crowley's later revisions it is the most widespread model out there. Even systems that use Qabalah with different attributions can be hard to integrate. For example, my great-grandmother was involved in Elbert Benjamine's Brotherhood of Light and I still have her Tarot deck and a number of her books. But the Brotherhood uses a completely different arrangement of the planets, spheres, and paths and as a result I haven't been able to get much out of them since I learned the GD/Crowley arrangement.

  2. @Ananael - Excellent point - it allows occultists and magicians to share information. Although, some would see this as a bad thing - being isolated is important to some folks. Also, being weirdly unique and eccentric is important to them, too.

  3. Isn't that almost always the point of getting rid of the Kabbalah for most people---being weirdly unique and eccentric.

  4. I've recently discovered your blog and found this post on Qabbalah particularly useful. I've blogged about it here and am looking forward to following along your new posts on the subject.